For US-Pakistan relationship, all roads go through Kabul

The success of the Afghan peace process, which has been facilitated by Islamabad, will determine the future direction of ties under a Biden presidency.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, will have to convince Biden, right, that his country is taking sincere steps towards regional peace [Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – With former US Vice President Joe Biden’s election as president of the United States, all eyes in Pakistan remain focused on Kabul – and the Qatari capital Doha – to determine what the tenor of what was once a key strategic US alliance in the region will be, analysts say.

As nascent peace talks between Afghan government representatives and leaders of the Afghan Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan, struggle to get off the ground in Doha, analysts and officials say the fate of those talks will, in large part, determine Biden’s approach to Pakistan.

“The main goal is reconciliation in Afghanistan and that effort continues,” said a Pakistani national security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to media.

“What we don’t want to see happening is the Afghan government and Taliban talks failing, and Pakistan being blamed for that, for not having ‘done enough’.”

The US also remains Pakistan’s largest bilateral export market, with economic ties between the two countries amounting to $6.16bn in the last financial year, according to Pakistani central bank data. Of that, $3.9bn was in Pakistani exports.

The US has also provided the South Asian country – home to more than 220 million people and eastern neighbour to Afghanistan, where the US has fought a 19-year war against the Afghan Taliban – with a lot of civilian and security aid.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the start of their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jonat
Khan and Trump reaffirmed their commitment to the Afghan peace process [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Last year, the US pledged $684m in assistance to Pakistan, of which $369m was in the form of military aid, according to US government data.

The relationship, analysts say, has been on its surest footing in years since 2018, when the US government under President Donald Trump committed to reaching a negotiated peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban, and between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Just months earlier, however, the relationship appeared to have reached its lowest ebb in decades.

Hardline approach towards Islamabad

In August 2017, in his first policy statement on South Asia since becoming president, Trump excoriated Pakistan with a common US criticism, accusing the country of providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban’s leadership while also acting as a US strategic ally.

The statement set alarm bells ringing in Islamabad, and it was no surprise when in January 2018, Trump once again went after the country in typically blunt fashion, this time on Twitter.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” he said.

That tweet prompted the cutting of more than $1.1bn in US security assistance to the country’s powerful military, which has directly ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 73-year history.

US peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad held talks with Pakistani Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in January regarding the Afghan peace process [Inter Services Public Relations via AP]

“Trump’s messaging back then was tough and unforgiving – and it was music to the ears of Pakistan hawks in Washington, who had long thought that US policy needed to take a more hardline approach toward Islamabad,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center think-tank.

In Pakistan, the message was received loud and clear, say analysts.

“There was a sense that the relationship was heading towards being more transactional, [and] the consensus in Pakistan was that a complete rupture was cost-prohibitive,” says Fahd Humayun, a security analyst.

While the aid cut generated much political outcry in Islamabad, Trump’s tougher approach appeared to lead to a renegotiation of expectations from both sides, one that ultimately culminated in warming ties as the US government committed to a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.

“There is one reason, and one reason alone, why the US-Pakistan relationship suddenly changed for the better: The Trump administration decided that it was going to pursue talks with the Taliban, and it recognised that it needed Pakistan’s help to do that,” says Kugelman.

Pakistan has admitted to holding “limited influence” over the Afghan Taliban’s leadership, and its role in facilitating the talks has repeatedly been praised by international powers.

Since August, the country has played host to Afghan government peace chief Abdullah Abdullah, senior Afghan Taliban commander and negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar and, most recently, former Hizb-e-Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and several Afghan government delegations.

The result has been a fragile peace process, achieved first through a historic deal, signed between the US and the Afghan Taliban in February, to secure a conditional withdrawal of US and international forces, and then the commencement of intra-Afghan talks in September.

Analysts say the distilling of the US-Pakistan relationship to an issue where both were now on the same page helped heal the ruptures of the past decade.

“For all Trump’s foreign policy misadventures, his approach to Pakistan, transactional as it was, seems to have worked reasonably well for both sides,” says Madiha Afzal, foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.

With talks in Doha progressing slowly, however, and a recent uptick in Afghan Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, there is concern that the fragile peace process could collapse.

Intra-Afghan talks

Pakistani officials have privately voiced concern that any breakdown of talks, a further increase in violence, or Biden’s likely approach of focusing in his first six months on domestic crises such as the coronavirus, could also increase pressure on Pakistan.

“If the US is distracted by internal issues, what does that mean for the Afghan government and Taliban negotiations?” said the Pakistani national security official. “This means that the regional countries may have to take a more pronounced role in facilitating intra-Afghan talks.”

The official said Pakistan did not want to be blamed for any failure in talks.

“Pakistan wants to see success in intra-Afghan negotiations according to the wishes of Afghan people. We’ve done all we can to facilitate the Afghan government and the US because we want to see peace and stability in the region. It is in Pakistan’s interest,” he said.

Itself emerging from years of battling the Pakistani Taliban, the South Asian country has seen violence drop sharply after a series of military operations to rout the armed group from Pakistani soil.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, left, meets US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad. Pakistan helped the US in the Afghan peace process [File: Pakistan Foreign Office via AP]

Now, the country has been seeking to revamp its image in the world as a more secure country, and it has received some support from the US in this regard, says Afzal.

“Pakistan helped the US in the Afghan peace process; Trump remained scrupulously positive in his public statements on Afghanistan, which was helpful as Pakistan sought to revamp its image,” she says.

Another major bone of contention on the road to Pakistan’s redemption in the court of international public opinion has been its battles with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which in 2018 placed the country on its “grey list” for not taking stringent enough action against money laundering and terrorism financing.

Last month, FATF gave the country until February to complete progress on its action plan, while certifying that the country had now largely addressed 21 out of 27 action items.

“We do expect that all of our work at the FATF should be supported and recognised and this sword that hangs over us should be removed,” said the Pakistani national security official.

‘More comprehensive relationship’

With US-Pakistan relations tentatively improving, the big question is whether Biden will change anything and alter that trajectory. Most analysts believe he will stay the course set by Trump in the region, with minor adjustments.

“The top line is that we shouldn’t expect much to change,” says Afzal at the Brookings Institution. “America still wants to leave Afghanistan. But Biden will do this more responsibly. He will not let the Taliban get away with as much as Trump did, and will hold it accountable for violating elements of the peace deal such as not cutting ties with al-Qaeda.”

Biden, who has years of experience on the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he followed the regional situation closely, could return the two countries to a more comprehensive relationship, said Humayun, the security analyst.

“The Biden administration would bring a lot more nuance to its understanding of Pakistan,” he says. “It is expected to rehabilitate the role of policy area specialists, which was almost completely ended under Trump.”

Humayun warns, however, that such a structural approach, not dependent on personalities, would also reduce the potential for “big wins” in the relationship.

“That also means there is less scope for the kind of unpredictability that could lead to massive improvements like what we saw when [Pakistani PM] Imran Khan visited the US and Trump made comments on Kashmir,” he says.

Pakistan, too, will be hoping for a return to the structural relationship it once enjoyed with the US.

“We used to have a strategic dialogue with the Obama government, and we hope that would be revived,” said the national security official. “It would talk about more than just terrorism and Afghanistan. Pakistan has a lot more to offer – on trade, commerce, energy and offering opportunities to US businesses, and that is how we want our relationship to be viewed.”

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim